The Colleen Bawn at the Gaiety Theatre

February 4, 2014

It was said of Annabelle Comyn’s production of The House that when Eleanor Methven was on stage she managed to provide a focus to performances around her that dissipated when she was not.

There’s a similar issue at play in Garry Hynes The Colleen Bawn. It’s not that there is a lack of focus – in fact the performers commit to what they are doing, achieving the unity we’ve come to expect from a Druid production.

But my god, Ashling O Sullivan takes your breath away from the very first sight of her. As the heiress Ann Chute- think Kenneth Williams meets Tracy Piggott, she captivates as a woman enamored with one man but not beholden enough to throw herself at him.

Unusual for a woman of that time, she has options. The richest bird in Kerry, she’d just as likely throw her lot in with her cousin Hardress, than commit to Kyrle whom she loves but suspects ‘has a wife in every port’.

And as she maneuvers her way around the rotating points of a love triangle she thinks she’s involved in, O Sullivan buys into the emotions her character is experiencing fully. Whether it be rage, infatuation or unquenchable curiosity, this ridiculous creature she’s created, with her horsey voice and her bow legged stride, becomes the most human thing in the production.

While many Irish actors rub themselves up against the audience for easy laughs, O Sullivan refuses to arch her turn for a quick pat. She uses her voice to illustrate the humour of Boucicault’s words, not as the comedy itself. Confusion, self-doubt and frustration are not rib ticklers but things that unsettle her.

And she’s fully focused on what is said to her. It’s like she is hearing it all for the first time, hence her reactions are not prompted by cues but by impulses set off by her emotions. You just can’t take your eyes off her when she is in a scene.

What this means ,though, is that when she is not around it feels like the production is in a holding pattern, awaiting its star to return. While O Sullivan is rich and rounded, the other characters are more bluntly executed, either thumping out the plays levity or darkness.

On one side there is Hardress Cregan (Marty Rea) who is married to the local peasant beauty, the Colleen Bawn (Kelly McAuley), yet is betrothed to Chute. The familial finances are thus, that he must commit bigamy by marrying again or see his mother (Marie Mullins) wed to the despicable mortgage holder, Mr. Corrigan (Maelíosa Stafford).

Will the Colleen Bawn give up the only evidince of her marriage, its license, as proof of her love for Hardress? Or will he have to take heavy action to secure his future via his loving Man Friday, Danny Man (Aaron Monaghan).

There’s much darkness among the begorrahs and unlike other productions I’ve seen of The Colleen Bawn, Hynses’ pays heed to it. But the characterisations beyond Chute are so rigid that it dehumanises them so that they doesn’t quite connect with the audience.

Rea’s Hardress is perpetually angsty, with no sign of the pampered charlatan. You fail to see what the Colleen Bawn would see in him. Not that she herself shows any sign of the allure that captivated both Hardress and Myles Na Gcopaleen (Rory Nolan). She’s a perpetual wingebag making you urge Danny Mann on when he shoves her under the water. Maelíosa Stafford meanwhile hams all the danger out of Mr. Creegan in a turn June Rodgers might consider a bit on the nose, the type of stage Irish beloved of expat audiences.

This is an excellent evenings entertainment. The wry humour sliced from doubling up, and the effects unleashed for the party scene show an imagination you wish they’d applied to Francis O Connor’s static, if gorgeous, Perspex set.

While the reading of some characters might be a little remiss the cast at least seem to be singing from the same sheet , which makes the action fly by, if not connect with any set target.


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